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Feature: Vanity Fur

William Kissel

At the fall 2002 couture fashion shows in Paris, the pièce de résistance on Valentino’s runway was an elaborately embroidered and appliquéd velvet dress with a plunging neckline, hem, and cuffs, all made of plush mink. Christian Lacroix introduced his usual flamboyant presentation with a bustled orange mink coat and ended with a smart tweed jacket that opened to reveal an indulgent little cocktail dress made of—what else?—pink mink. And while leaving the Donatella Versace extravaganza, one observer called the designer’s mile-long sable coat “the ultimate indulgence for the woman with a zillion bucks.”

After a year plagued by terrorism scares, tumbling stock prices, and the looming threat of war, you might expect that fashion designers would move in a somber, classic direction. Instead, they have produced some of their most opulent women’s wear in years, using extravagant materials such as 18-karat gold thread, intricate silk brocades, and fur, fur, and more fur.

“More designers are using furs in different ways than ever before,” says Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America (FICA). Kaplan notes that last year’s fur sales rang in at the second-highest level in a decade, despite the sagging economy and one of the warmest winters on record. Behind this record growth, says Kaplan, is an infusion of fashion and technology that is permanently changing the nature of fur and how women perceive it. And, he adds, women who have been exposed to fur through Gucci, Prada, Versace, and other favorite fashion designers are beginning to view fur as a part of fashion rather than as a separate entity.

Not only are fashion designers borrowing from the fur market, but furriers, who once considered themselves above the triviality of fashion trends, are closely following what is being paraded down the runways of Milan, Paris, and New York. This season, one of the major fashion trends emphasizes a bohemian, crazy-quilt aesthetic that applies color, embroidery, tie-dye effects, beading, fringe, and appliqué with an almost playful, childlike sensibility. “Designers really went after that folk-luxe theme in an attempt to create clothes that have an artisan quality about them,” says Beth Kanfer, a fashion director for furs at Saks Fifth Avenue. “And it’s these same embellishments that make furs stand out, too.” She notes that the key fur trends this year are shearling and ornamentation—fringe, embroidery, beading, patchwork, or waffling—“essentially anything that makes the coat look special and one of a kind,” she explains. “We also have some minks that reverse to hand-painted shearlings.”

Brett Schulman, vice president of Alixandre, which is applying some of these treatments to fur coats for Oscar de la Renta, Badgley Mischka, Valentino, and others, agrees. “What is keeping the business moving are the unique and special things in the couture collection: hand-painting and embroideries on broadtail and mink.”

Schulman says that for the Oscar de la Renta collection, Alixandre pulled out all the stops, including such novelties as a patchwork silk jacket with Russian sable trim, a black embroidered broadtail coat, and a colorfully hand-painted reversible Russian sable coat. “Embroidery is being used everywhere: as trim, at the collar, down the front, on the bottom, and at the sleeve cuffs,” he says, adding that even shearlings, which are traditionally reserved for more sporty looks, have been hand-painted and embroidered for a dressier couture flavor.

Hana K, a company known for innovative combinations of sheared mink, sable, and chinchilla, is also dressing up shearlings this season by printing patterns on them that resemble more exotic furs such as tiger, giraffe, and leopard. “We wanted to do something no one else was doing,” says owner Pierre Lang, who has also had success with tie-dyed or marbled minks. “We’ve always been driven to do really fancy things—laser cuts, embroideries, and reversible sheared minks—that are exquisite and lightweight but also just dripping in luxury,” he says.

As evidenced by the adventurous innovations at Hana K, there is more to the latest fur creations than mere embellishments. Technological advances are allowing furriers to do amazing things such as grooving, plucking, shearing, and knitting the skins to give them texture and to maintain their tactile ecstasy without adding weight. In some cases, it is difficult to tell that these coats are actually made of fur.

“Right now we are showing a lot of reversible minks and sables,” says Nick Pologeorgis, president of Pologeorgis, which manufactures furs under its own label and also produces them for designers Michael Kors, Zandra Rhodes, and Chado Ralph Rucci. “They look like wool shearling, but they are actually mink.”

Hide-out furs, which are reversible to shearling or suede, are rapidly increasing in popularity thanks to their split-personality versatility as well as comfort. Many of these new lightweight furs are achieved by shearing or sueding the back of the skin, so that the finished coat does not require a lining. Without the linings, explains Pologeorgis, some of them are even lighter than coats made of cashmere.

Lightness is a key characteristic of modern fur, agrees Ed Graf, third-generation owner of New York manufacturer Ben Kahn Furs, whose most extravagant offerings are two extremely rare chinchilla coats—one cognac and one albino—priced at $100,000 each. “When my grandfather used to sell coats, women wanted heavy furs because weight connoted certain value,” he explains. “Today, if I put one of those heavy fur coats on a client, she would be very unhappy with it.”

From enhanced comfort to heightened versatility to avant-garde fashion, fur makers are doing their best to transform what was once a staid and traditional discretionary item into a contemporary wardrobe must. One thing that has not changed about fur is the sheer indulgence of it. “In the world of apparel, fur is still the supreme luxury,” says Jim Farr, fur buyer at Stanley Korshak in Dallas, which stocks a selection of limited edition furs, including a vanilla-colored broadtail coat trimmed in golden Russian sable for $32,500. “Designers at the couture level are interested in providing their customers with the ultimate, and I don’t think they are being frivolous about it. They understand what is happening in the world.  But I don’t believe that a customer should ever feel guilty about owning luxury.”

Ben Kahn Furs, 212.279.0633;
Christina Perrin, 212.997.4497, www.christinaperrin.com
Douglas Hannant, 212.398.7759, www.douglashannant.com
Eric Gaskins, Tom Moriber for Miller & Berkowitz,  212.244.5459
Fur Information Council of America (FICA), 323.848.7940, www.fur.org
Hana K, 212.764.2625 or 847.242.1211, www.hanak.com
Lucy for Berkley Fur, 212.382.1171
Michael Kors, Zandra Rhodes for Pologeorgis, 212.563.2250
Oscar de la Renta for Alixandre, 212.736.5550, www.alixandrefurs.com
Zuki International, 888.770.9777 or 514.843.7333, www.zuki.com

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Photo by Ted Morrison